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How do you know right from wrong?

by Jennifer Muirhead (follow)
I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma ~ Eartha Kitt.
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Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who argued that reason was the source of morality.


How do you know whether something is the right thing to do or not? Does your understanding of morality come from religious belief or from something else?

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That's a tough question!
I think initially our sense of right or wrong comes from the approval or disapproval of our primary caregivers as children.
But later, well perhaps it comes from either, depending on the person. I know people who live by the ten commandments because that is what they believe. However, being an atheist, that doesn't work for me.
As for the societal influence, I would say I mostly follow the "rules", but then I don't fully live within the law either. And while I am certainly influenced by social mores, they wouldn't stop me from doing something I believe is right. But they would stop me doing something I also think is wrong.

So, I think it is reason. Especially for the tough choices about right and wrong. I am a Registered Nurse, so I do practice within the codes of nursing for Australian nurses, regardless of whether I think they are right or wrong, because I am not willing to risk losing my registration. I do believe a peaceful death is better in some cases than a prolonged but painful life. But I won't participate in any form of euthanasia because it is against the code of practice for nurses. However, in some cases (not talking about euthanasia here) I could probably argue an interpretation of the code that is in the patients best interest.

But for personal decisions, I guess I work on the idea of "Do no harm". That doesn't necessarily mean it won't hurt, but sometimes you have to go against the rules because following the rules doesn't make sense. eg our local council says no pools in the front yard, only in the back. I live on a steeply sloping block and the only flat area is the courtyard at the front of the house. It is well hidden from the street, so I don't see any reason why I shouldn't put my portable spa there. It has a lockable cover, which is always locked on when no-one is in the spa- so in the unlikely event that a toddler should walk in off the street, there is no chance of drowning.
Bother, hit reply before finishing the post.
So, what I was saying was, I am doing the wrong thing by the council rules. But I am doing the right thing by the concept of the rules, ie doesn't attract young children because it is out of sight, and it isn't dangerous because it has a locked cover, and it can't offend anyone because it is out of sight. So I am doing the "wrong" thing by the rules, but I believe it is the "right" thing as I have reasoned beyond the rules to the concept behind them. Hence, it is reasoning that informs my moral decisions of right and wrong.
You say you have reasoned beyond.

That still would make it wrong, we don't know why any Council makes the rules it does, and I'm hearing you...you have no where else to put the spa.
But...can you imagine, if we all maybe saw...that we have a valid reason.So lets forget the rules, and just do it to how we feel it can work.

One of the reasons 'why' we all have to follow the rules is because if we don't, there is no one 'watching the boundaries in life'.Then you have people doing what they wish, and that will never work with so many people on the planet.

Rules are there for a reason.(I'm not having a go please don't think that)...I fully understand your plight, having had one myself.

But...say that one day a kid knew it was there(your spa)...and you forget to lock it?..Now you know you won't, but can any of us say 100% .If anything does ever happen....you will be taken to jail, it is just how it works.You will be
in for some time.
I'm just saying, some rules are just not worth it.If council ever do see it, and they do go overhead at certain times of homes, to make sure that people don't build in their backyards....without permission...if they see your spa, 'hello''!!! you will get a fine maybe, as well as told to get it out.
Their fines are not just a few dollars.Something to give some thought too. :)
by jonaja
Empathy is usually a good guide. The Golden Rule, as it is expressed in Christianity, is do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I can imagine how it would make me feel if someone hit me, and infer that someone else would also not like to be hit therefore I shouldn't hit them.

Of course it gets more complicated where you have to make a choice that's going to hurt someone either way. Then you can go the Utilitarian route and try and pick whatever creates the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Even that can get murky though. There's a thought experiment where you are asked whether if you could fix all the world's problems by torturing a single child would you do it?

So I really don't know how you tell sometimes, or whether it's even possible.


You're always going to have some degree of damage to any decision, and it reminds me of economics lessons and learning about "opportunity cost", which is the cost of doing something over something else, not in monetary value, but in missed opportunities. For example, if I decide to study for an exam I have to forgo going to that party on Saturday night. I guess it comes down to asking yourself the question, could you live with the cost of achieving your aims - like with the torturing of the child. I unequivocally would say no, it wouldn't be worth the price because I couldn't live with being responsible for that.
I doubt that I could bring myself to torture a child, no matter how many other people it was saving. But then I don't see any problem as having only 2 options. I believe that if I look hard enough, I can either find a third option, or at least a way to mitigate the circumstances surrounding the options available.

So, could I kill a child humanely, if it would benefit the whole entire world, maybe. But then I could also look at why does it have to be torture? Is it a witnessed torture that is needed? If so, could it be done by simulating torture of a child? And who would really benefit? Would it really solve all the world problems or is there a misunderstanding in that premise? Could it be that half the worlds problems could be saved by removing a child from this imagined scenario... with the thought that solving half the problem now, may lead to solving the rest of the problems later?
It's a thought experiment, so for the sake of argument, yes it has to be torture, and yes it would really have the benefit it was supposed to. Given those two choices I couldn't do it.

I think there's an Ursuala Le Guin story based on this idea (or the idea comes from it?) called Those Who Walked Away from Absolom, where people live in a beautiful Utopian city and on coming of age are told what the price is for living in such a perfect state and given the opportunity to stay or leave. There's a similar choice in a Doctor Who episode called The Beast Below, though there there did turn out to be a third option which no-one had thought of.

This is a potentially disastrous thought may I say...It should not even be given to any human being the idea of ''If we could help the whole world, by the Torturing of a single child''
Why... would it have to be on these terms you should ask..It is not in my opinion even to be considered, because it violates 'any'' human decency.

When a person conjures up such a question, it is to offend our senses.
It is a vile way to get someone to choose.

The first key that this is from the mind of a considerably disturbed person is the word used ''tortured''.

Such questions come from people with essentially scrambled minds.

by jonaja
Jonaj it is deliberately extreme to make the point. The idea is to determine whether there are some things that are always wrong no matter the circumstances. There are people who argue moral relativism, that nothing is objectively good or objectively bad, there is only how we perceive them. It's something you hear quite a lot in the media these days. Take for example how people in Australia get a bit upset at the idea of eating horse meat when in other places it's considered perfectly acceptable. People argue that it's not for us to criticise what other cultures do, and sometimes I think that's true. On the other hand, I think we are perfectly within our rights to criticise the practice of allowing men to marry and rape young girls, as happens in Saudi Arabia.

Personally I would go with moral pluralism instead. I think that some things do depend on their context but that there are certain things that are just always wrong.

The above thought experiment also demonstrates very effectively that what does the greatest good for the greatest number of people might not always be the best thing to choose. I don't think there's anything scrambled about that. If you think it is intended to suggest that there's anything okay about torture you missed the point.
Once again Jennifer ''It is my opinion'' and I am (at this time in Australia) able to exercise 'what I think of such a question'.

It may not be an answer, one would think acceptable...given the exercise.
But for the time I have on this planet, that's how I called it.
In other words ''I also gave a spanner in the works on it's so-called-thinking'', maybe hoping someone out there, could see the side I presented.
Once again ''My opinion''.
by jonaja
P.S. ...There are some questions that should never be asked in life...they become
5+9 =15 instead of 14...maybe on a scale of balance that can put my point better.
by jonaja
I have to agree with Kant to some extent, my morality comes from a combination of reason and social mores. Generally, what societies think is ok to do is based on time tested experience and that if people don't think it's ok then that is because it has been proven to be harmful. For example, as a society we don't drink alcohol and drive because we have learned that this can lead to horrible accidents. Over time, this knowledge has been turned into laws that most of us follow because we know it is the right thing to do. Some people don't reason so well, so for them the laws are created to make the penalty of not following hopefully greater than doing the dangerous thing.
True, but sometimes things that have been generally held to be morally right and enshrined in law are later decided to be wrong, like slavery and apartheid. Whether something is legal or not isn't necessarily a good guide to whether or not it's right.
Yes that is true, and sometimes power is given to people who abuse it, and sometimes the information people are given to base decisions on is wrong, but on the whole most people are good and want to do the right thing.
I'm sure that most people do want to do the right thing, but unfortunately there are times when the majority is mistaken as to what the right thing is (or at least they certainly seem mistaken when we look back on it). Everything the Nazis did was legal (oops, I've gone and invoked Godwin's Law, I suppose it was inevitable).

Sometimes a really horrible practice can last for quite a while (slavery, racism) so tradition's not necessarily a good guide either.
I think, if we take religion totally out of this...we have human beings knowing what 'feels' right.What 'feels' wrong.

It is to me something that the greater portion of human beings have inside of them.(There are and always will be some people born, not having a full comprehension of conscience).

We have sight/smell/speech/feelings/ why not moral conscience.
I know this is a very simple view, but it would make no sense, if we were unable to know that we are doing something right or wrong.

Of course there are the bigger issues, as to 'why' we would choose to do something with far greater consequences.

That would need to be broken down as to 'what the issue is'...Why did we choose to make that choice.Something that would look wrong to some.
I like the idea of a conscience being like another sense. I read something a while back about how a tendency to help others could be an evolutionary advantage for a species.
It's an inbuilt human trait to know right from wrong. Then there're the teachings & guidance of your Parents, Teachers & Church.
I've been told that my sense of 'justice' is extremely high. That just suits me fine. Will certainly keep me 'on the right side of the law'!
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